Thursday, 27 January 2022
Higher Education Authority Bill 2022: Second Stage (Resumed)
I was delighted to begin the introduction of this legislation in the House last night before the House adjourned for the evening. I believe this is important legislation for reforming and modernising how we govern the higher education sector. It needs to be seen alongside a broader programme of reform of the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, student grant scheme, reducing the cost of education, making sure there is education for all, and creating a unified, integrated third level system across apprenticeships, further education and training, and higher education. As we invest more and more in higher education, it is important we have modern governance structures in place and oversight and accountability mechanisms that recognise the autonomy of institutions but also the public policy concerns and views this House and the people will have in ensuring we have a modern, fit for purpose, agile, flexible, higher education system that can deliver educationally and deliver the skills our country requires now and in the future.
I began last night to outline the sections of the Bill. I got as far as section 34. Sections 35 and 36 provide for the preparation by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, in consultation with the Minister, of a performance framework for the higher education and research system and the agreement by the HEA of performance agreements with designated institutions of higher education that are in accordance with the performance framework.
Sections 37 to 42, inclusive, provide that grants may be issued by the HEA to higher education institutions or other bodies or persons which provide services consistent with the functions of the HEA. The HEA shall prepare and establish a framework, with the approval of the Minister, for the allocation of funding. Funding to bodies shall be made in accordance with such conditions of funding as specified by the chief executive officer of the HEA. The chief executive officer of the HEA may request and use the information provided by other bodies to establish if an education provider meets the criteria, terms and conditions of the funding framework and ensure a funded body is compliant on an ongoing basis with the conditions of funding. The chief executive officer may review compliance with conditions of funding by a funded body and may, following this review and consultation with the funded body, issue appropriate directions in writing regarding continued compliance with the conditions of funding. The chief executive officer may impose remedial or other measures on the funded body for non-compliance with conditions of funding. The body may appeal against the decision of the chief executive officer to impose remedial or other measures.
Sections 43 to 45, inclusive, provide for formal engagement between students and designated institutions of higher education, including the provision of training for students participating as members of the governing body of a designated institution of higher education. There is also provision for the HEA to engage with and seek views from representatives of students, including representatives of students in priority groups, on issues of relevance at a national level to the experience of students participating in higher education. These sections also provide for the HEA to undertake, in partnership with other bodies, a student survey at least every two years in respect of undergraduate students and postgraduate students.
Section 46 provides that the HEA shall prepare and submit to the Minister for approval a draft strategic action plan providing for equity of access, participation and promotion of success for a period of up to seven years. Each designated institution of higher education is required to report annually to the HEA on the implementation of the plan.
Section 47 provides that the HEA will promote and support designated institutions of higher education in the development and provision of lifelong and flexible learning. Sections 48 to 52 provide for the collection and sharing of personal and non-personal data from designated institutions of higher education and funded bodies subject to the data protection regulation, the Data Protection Act 2018 and the Data Sharing and Governance Act 2019. There is also provision for the HEA to carry out studies and research on any issue related to its functions.
Sections 53 to 60 provide for the designation of higher education providers as designated institutions of higher education. Universities, institutes of technology, technological universities, the National College of Art and Design, NCAD, and education providers which have received a university authorisation order under the Universities Act 1997 are automatically classified as designated institutions of higher education for the purposes of this Bill. Other higher education providers may be designated by ministerial order as designated institutions of higher education under the Act if, following an application for designation, they meet certain conditions following an assessment process undertaken by the HEA. The conditions of designation will be made by regulation by the Minister in consultation with the HEA and the designated institutions of higher education will be required to comply on an ongoing basis with these conditions. The HEA may undertake reviews of compliance and the Minister may make an order revoking the designation if a designated institution of higher education is not complying with the conditions for designation or where a designated institution of higher education has made an application for the revoking of the designation order itself. A designated institution of higher education may use the title "Designated Institution of Higher Education" to describe itself and it precludes a body which is not a designated institution of higher education from using that title.
Sections 61 to 63 provide that a designated institution which is not already obligated by sectoral legislation to do so, shall prepare a strategic development plan and an equality statement and provide them to the HEA and shall keep all proper and usual accounts. Sections 64 to 69 provide that the chief executive officer, CEO, may request the governing body of a designated institution of higher education to undertake a review where there are concerns about the governance or performance of a designated institution of its functions or responsibilities and to provide a report of the matter to the CEO. The CEO may make a determination for action following consideration of a report under section 64 if he or she is not satisfied that concerns regarding the performance by the designated institution of higher education have been adequately addressed and resolved, or if the designated institution of higher education concerned does not undertake a review or prepare and submit a report to the CEO. The determination may include all or any of the following actions: the provision of assistance to the institution concerned; the imposition of remedial measures as respects the institution concerned; the provision of information to such other bodies as the CEO considers appropriate; or the undertaking of a review of the institution concerned with the approval of the board.
Sections 70 to 72 provides for an appeals process. Appeals can be made under sections: 42(6) in relation to the imposition of remedial measures following review of compliance with conditions of funding; 54(12) regarding a refusal to make a designation order in respect of a higher education provider; 59(13) in relation to the revocation of a designation order in respect of a higher education provider; or 65(4) regarding the imposition of remedial measures following the review and report by a designated institution of higher education.
Sections 73 to 118 relate to amendments to the sectoral legislation including the Universities Act 1997, the Technological Universities Act 2018, the Regional Technical Colleges Act 1992, the Regional Technical Colleges (Amendment) Act 1994 and the National College of Art and Design Act 1971. These amendments include the reform of the governing authorities or bodies of universities, technological universities and institutes of technology to provide that they shall consist of 17 members appointed by the governing authority or body, comprising one external chairperson, two students, one chief officer, five internal members other than the chief officer, three external members nominated by the Minister, and five external members, other than the chairperson. These sections also contain a provision that the governing authority of Trinity College Dublin shall comprise of 17 members and up to an additional five fellows and the amendment of the Trinity College Supplemental Letters Patent of 1911, as amended by the Trinity College Dublin (Charters and Letters Patent Amendment) Act 2000, to be in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act 1997. Other amendments provide that the chairperson of the governing authority of a university shall be appointed by a majority vote of not less than two-thirds and that the chairperson is an external member of the governing authority. That is an important change. These sections also provide for additional functions for the governing authorities or bodies to ensure good governance practice and the insertion of new sections to provide that the governing authority or body can carry out a review of a matter if it has concerns regarding the governance or performance of the functions or responsibilities of the higher education institutions. Another important provision is that the governing authority or body shall, with the approval of the Minister, determine the transitional arrangements and procedures to be put in place to ensure that the new governing authorities or bodies comply with the new provisions for governing authorities or bodies within 12 months. The Bill provides for consultation by the governing authority or body on the preparation of the strategic development plan. It also includes provisions for consultation by the governing authority or body on the preparation of the equality policy and provisions for members of the governing authority or body other than an ex officio member who is an employee of the higher education institutions to receive remuneration subject to the approval of the Minister and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. Other amendments to the National College of Art and Design Act 1971 to modernise the legislation include the provision of an academic council and academic freedom of the governing authority and the academic staff of the college.
Sections 119 to 124 provide for minor amendments to the Student Support Act 2011, the Industrial Training Act 1967, the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 and the National Treasury Management Agency (Amendment) Act 2014. Sections 125 to 128 provide for the publication by the HEA of the names of the designated institutions of higher education, the preparation or adoption and issuing of guidelines, codes or policies to designated institutions of higher education by the HEA, the methods of sending a notice and consequential amendments of enactments in Schedule 4.
Schedule 1 provides the enactments to be repealed by this Act including the entirety of the Higher Education Authority Act 1971. Schedule 2 provides detailed regulations regarding the operation of the board of the HEA. Schedule 3 provides the detail regarding the making of a scheme amending the existing superannuation schemes of the HEA made under Section 15 of the Higher Education Authority Act 1971 while schedule 4 provides a detailed list of amendments to other enactments, primarily definitions to ensure compatibility with this legislation.
To summarise, this is genuinely the most significant legislative reform of the third level education system since the 1971 Act establishing the HEA. The world has changed an awful lot since 1971, as has higher education. As far as I remember, when these Houses passed the Higher Education Authority Bill in 1971 there were around 20,000 students in full-time higher education in Ireland. Thanks to huge societal progress in our country, economic progress and policies pursued by this Oireachtas through successive Governments, we now have a student population that is well above 200,000 and approaching 250,000. The world has changed, the education system has changed and the level of funding and investment from the taxpayer has changed. Education in and of itself has changed and it is important that the legislative framework changes as well. The aim of this Bill is to set up a modern system for future students, staff and governing authorities of higher education institutions and with this we will drive forward higher performance, accountability and overall improvements in our higher education system. This education tries to ensure that we absolutely respect the autonomy of our higher education institutions but that we also help them to make sure that their own internal governance is fit for purpose. It is not acceptable in the twenty first century, and I am not sure it was acceptable in the twentieth century, to have boards that are not chaired by external members. We cannot have a scenario where the chief executive is also the chair of the board. We have to get real here and modernise. We must recognise that we need boards based on competencies and skill sets. I pay huge tribute to all who have served and who currently serve on governing authorities. They do so without remuneration and they do so driven by the public good. I thank them all for their service. This legislation is about recognising that we need smaller boards, with more external appointees and an external chairperson and that the HEA, the Minister and the Department must be clear in relation to the setting of overall higher education policy in our country.
There is no doubt that higher education system is a key plank of our country's future, our people's prosperity. It is also a driver of equality and cultural change and integral to our national economic and social sustainability. It is essential that we bring a clear, specific and respectful definition to the relationship between higher education institutions and the State. This legislation is a crucial part of the Government's reform agenda for the higher education system but it is just one part. Others include a sustainable funding model, changes around student accommodation, reform of the SUSI grant, the delivery of the technological universities and the expansion of the apprenticeship programme. This is a jigsaw and these are all important parts of forming that picture. As we look to drive our ambitions forward, we are seeking to ensure that the fundamental building blocks of governance and funding are firmly in place. I genuinely look forward to working with Members on all sides of this House on this legislation as it goes through the various stages. I hope we can work together to tease through issues and to make sure we produce the best possible law. I look forward to engaging in that spirit.
I thank the Minister. As he knows, Sinn Féin supports legislative reform in higher education to clarify the role of the HEA, to increase inclusion and access and to ensure proper governance and accountability. I acknowledge that the Minister and his Department have taken on board a number of recommendations - some, but not all - that Sinn Féin put forward during pre-legislative scrutiny.
They included issues around the role of the HEA in promoting the Irish language, increasing North-South co-operation, increasing the number of board members and the removal of the limit on the number of members on the academic councils. I welcome the inclusion of student representation on the board of the HEA. I call on the Minister to take on board the committee recommendation that trade union representation should be included on the board of the HEA.
Similarly, I welcome the inclusion of the specific role of the HEA in promoting cross-border co-operation in higher education. The education committee also specifically called for a role for the HEA in promoting cross-border student enrolment. I welcome that the Bill now makes specific reference to the role of the HEA in promoting the Irish language. I assume that was an oversight in the general scheme and I am glad it is now included. That said, the role given to the HEA in promoting the Irish language is weaker in this Bill than in the 1971 Act that it will replace and in the Universities Act 1997. I believe it should be strengthened.
Despite these changes in the general scheme, there is still substantial room for improvement in the Bill. We will continue to work constructively with the Minister to try to get the Bill where it needs to be. As things stand, I am not satisfied that the Minister has struck the right balance between the autonomy for the institutions of higher education and the governing oversight. I have engaged extensively with the sector over recent months and the management of every institution accepts the need for the highest standards and for transparency and accountability of public finances. That is without exception and it is beyond question. The Minister will always have my support and Sinn Féin’s support for any policy that achieves that. However, there are many proposals in the Bill which reduce the autonomy of institutions of higher education without any clear relationship with transparency and accountability. I have yet to see or hear a convincing justification for dictating such rigid governance structures such as the mandatory 17-member limit on the governing bodies. These are all unpaid positions. Every governing body has its own unique make-up and tradition. Slashing the numbers allowed on the board seems mistaken. It is a decision that colleges are more than capable of making, as long as they meet certain standards of competency and external representation. The substantial reduction in size will put more strain on members and will reduce representation on the board of different institutions and the wider communities. The removal of the broader representation on the governing bodies will be a real loss. It is unfair to say that the legislation will move the sector to a competency-based governance model. Governing bodies are currently made up of members of academic and non-academic staff, undergraduate, graduate and postgraduate students, alumni, local authority nominees, trade union representatives, employers organisations and others. As recently as 2018, a Fine Gael Government passed legislation on technological universities that stipulated a 22-person governing body or 26 in certain cases. A few short years later, that has been reduced even further without any clear explanation of its merits. We need to have further discussions on that
It is claimed that this Bill will promote a student-focused system. However it seems that because of the reforms to governing bodies, students will have less representation on governing bodies in all higher education institutions. The Minister needs to clarify the potential impact this could have on the representation of undergraduate and postgraduate students on the governing bodies, on the representation of academic and non-academic staff and on trade union representation.
Governing boards benefit and are strengthened by external membership. However, this legislation mandates a majority of external members without clear justification or explanation. How strong could the justification possibly be given that board exemptions have been granted for Trinity College Dublin? I have no issue with TCD being shown flexibility to reflect its unique governance structure but I believe that different models can be equally successfully provided for. Certain safeguards are in place to ensure good governance, transparency and accountability. TCD is not the only college with its own unique history and governance structure. I think of the newly formed Atlantic technological university that will soon make Castlebar a university town and I look forward to that. This multi-campus technological university involves thousands of students spread across locations in Castlebar, Galway city, Killybegs, Letterfrack, Letterkenny, Mountbellew and Sligo. The geographical spread and multi-campus nature of this university will mean it is very distinct from most other colleges, yet it is being given no flexibility to anyone, whether student, parent, academic, staff or otherwise. This looks unfair and elitist. The Minister should look again at the rigid and overly prescriptive governance structures and find a fair approach that can be applied to everyone without damaging the unique characteristics, and the differentiated missions of the different institutions.
A stated purpose of the Bill is to clarify the role of the HEA. The Bill seems to strengthen the HEA in some ways, yet in others it seems to be reduced to a regulator rather than a strong independent authority capable of advocating for the needs of the sector. The HEA should have a role in ensuring that the sector is adequately resourced. Under the Bill as it stands, I believe it is not possible to do that. As it currently stands, the HEA no longer has any role as a voice for the sector. A clear example of this is the fact that the CEO of the HEA will be specifically prohibited from commenting on policy. The Bill states that the director "shall not question or express an opinion on the merits of any policy of the Government or a Minister of the Government or on the merits of the objectives of such a policy". I know this is not the first Bill to put this limit on this CEO of a State agency but that does not mean we should just accept it as the right way to go. I would like the Minister to explain why this is necessary. This fundamentally means that the HEA will be incapable of advocating for the sector and challenging the Government.
The Bill grants sole powers of review to the HEA CEO and empowers the CEO to make a determination whether further action is necessary following a review. The right of the HEA to appeal decisions must be robust enough to provide higher education institutions with assurances that they can challenge decisions. In the heads of the Bill published last summer, all determinations of actions could be appealed whereas the Bill now allows only for a right of appeal against remedial measures. On top of this, an appeal does not put a stay on the implementation of the measure determined by the CEO. An appeals framework of this nature was not contemplated by the heads of the Bill. I hope the Minister will be prepared to work with the Opposition and the sector to amend this section.
I have met with most third level colleges in the State over the last 12 months and all of them were more than happy to be held to the highest standards of accountability as recipients of public funding. That said, there was also a great deal of concern about the watering down of institutional autonomy. Good governance and accountability can be ensured without sacrificing the autonomy of our third level institutions. The greatest testament to the governance of higher education is that these institutions have managed to maintain the performance of the system over the last ten years. We have seen over a decade of austerity in the higher education sector. Fundamentally governance is not the main issue facing the sector. Legislative reform will be of limited value unless it is accompanied by a sustainable funding model. The Minister acknowledges that. He did so when he acknowledged that even though the numbers have increased, that has not been underpinned by funding in the way it needs to be. During that time, there has been a piecemeal privatisation and deep commercialisation of public third level education. Today, most universities have a majority of revenue coming from sources other than the State. Some of that is positive, such as winning competitive research funding or attracting more international students. However, it has been driven out of necessity due to what the Irish Universities Association has labelled as state divestment from third level education. That should concern us all. The ethos and the focus of these centres of education and research have been shifted towards commercial considerations and huge amounts of time and energy are spent operating on a commercial basis. This is energy that would be better spent on education and research. I do not blame the individual institutions. This has been explicit policy of successive Governments.
I will work with the Minister on this legislation. We want to make it as good as we possibly can. We are rectifying legislation that is 50 years old. We have a duty and responsibility to do that and I look forward to working with him.
I welcome the Minister. It is very welcome to have a Bill that overhauls the higher education system. I support many of the provisions in the Bill. I wish to raise a number of issues in relation to the south east. I am sure the Minister expects that from colleagues across the State where new institutes of technology are being put in place.
I begin with a number of points on the autonomy piece, which is really important. I sat on the Committee of Public Accounts for several years and I fully agree we need to have real transparency and accountability regarding the higher education system and higher education institutions. In my time on that committee I saw that there are many areas where that is not in place. One of those areas is intellectual property rights when spin-out companies emerge from institutes of technology and universities, and conflicts of interest may have to be managed. It is a really important area because I support innovation and spin-out companies, but it is about getting the process right and we need to see reform there. I have a concern about autonomy and the limitation of the board of either a university or an institute of technology. I refer to the fact that even if a higher education institution wants to increase the membership of the board, it will not be able to do so. That seems problematic to me but maybe the Minister will be able to set out the rationale.
I have a number of questions. I would love to be able to give the Minister time to respond from my own time but I do not think it is possible. I will pose the questions anyway and he might be able to come back to me. First of all, there is obviously much excitement about the possibility that on 1 May this year, the south east will have a university for the first time, if that designation date happens. I have a question on the process and whether any additional clarity is being sought by the institutions in Carlow or Waterford on that process and criteria. Is it the case that the process is still on track? Are we still looking at 1 May for designation? I see the Minister is in agreement. If that is the case, it is really good news.
The second question relates to clarity on the funding commitments for Waterford specifically. The Minister might remember there was a meeting of Oireachtas Members from across the south east. One of the commitments that was given was there would be very substantial funding committed to the south east. This applied especially to Waterford in order that the footprint of the campus be expanded. We have not seen that yet. There has not been any announcement. There has been discussion and dialogue with developers, landowners and so on but that has been going on for a long time now and we need to bring clarity to it. As we approach 1 May, the goodwill demonstrated by the Minister needs to be translated into real action. There is also the appointment of a new chairperson. When is that likely to happen? Unfortunately, the Minister cannot come back in as the rules do not allow it. If they did I would certainly give him the minute and a half I have left to respond. He might come back to me in writing, if he can, on those matters.
In conclusion, it might be no harm and a good opportunity for the Minister if he were to brief Oireachtas Members from the south east again over the next of weeks on where we are with this process, to assure us we are on track for 1 May and to update us on the financial commitments that were given. This will ensure we can hit the ground running and have a first-class university for the south east. It is timely that this Bill is happening now and we are going to see a new legal framework put in place for higher education institutions at a time when the south east is going to see, we hope, a university on 1 May.
This important Bill reflects the importance of higher education across the State, including in my own constituency through Maynooth University, which is in my home town. Higher education matters to all of us. It is encouraging to see the Minister has taken on board some of the suggestions from pre-legislative scrutiny, including ramping up North-South co-operation and a role for the HEA in promoting an Ghaeilge. We in Sinn Féin feel the Bill could be a bit stronger on that, as Deputy Conway-Walsh has outlined. It is welcome and positive, however. On the North-South issue, we still want to see specific roles for the HEA in student enrolment. It is absolutely vital. We are also glad to see the Minister will no longer appoint the majority of board members to higher education institutions. That is very welcome.
However, despite all the talk and all the Bills, we will never get to where we really need to be without adequate funding. I tell the Minister funding is where it is at. I am asking him to put the Government's money where its mouth is by publishing the Cassells report's economic findings and removing higher education from the brutality of austerity. We have now had at least two generations of students go through the system with it in the grip of austerity. We really need to do much better for them and by them. It goes without saying that Sinn Féin is hugely ambitious in higher education, for all our people and what they can achieve within it. That is very much on display in the North. I know there was a lot of chagrin from some of the sectarian Northern commentariat but we see the importance of higher education. We want and need to see many more places available to prospective students so we can have more thinkers, more professionals and more well-paid jobs for all our workers across society. As a new Deputy, I often find that we are delighted when a new post is created but then we cannot find a qualified person to fill it. Therefore, we really must make more spaces available. We are very glad to see that the Bill provides for structured student engagement and for lifelong and flexible learning. Free secondary education revolutionised life and opportunity in this State for our people and now we need an equal freedom and opportunity when it comes to higher education here.
On freedom and opportunity, I hope the Minister does not mind if I take advantage of this opportunity to ask about the situation at Maynooth University where students have been notified that courses with over 250 students are still to be taught online even though college catering and hospitality are open, as they indeed are across the town. All the pubs are open in Maynooth. There are students who have only had a whiff of a lecture hall since they started college and they really need to know why their lectures are online while society has reopened. I will put down a question to the Minister on that. It is not just me who is anxious as many of the Maynooth students who have been contacting me are very anxious for a reply as well.
For us in Sinn Féin, another critical part of higher education is apprenticeships. While I note there will be an apprenticeship office, it really must deliver. We will be keeping a close eye on that so it does not become a vehicle to dismantle the craft apprentice model because it is very important. I know from my constituents in Kildare North that there are many bright, talented young people in secondary school and some of them are bored stiff with it. Sometimes they are made to feel kind of useless because they think in a different way and have a different kind of talent. School is not for everybody and nor is third level, in the form of the traditional college. For some of these kids, every day is torture. They are dying to get out and start an apprenticeship that reflects their talent and career ambition. They have so much to offer their community and our economy and when it comes to higher education it is important they are not left behind.
Before I finish, I am also anxious that there be more trade union representation on the HEA board. Equally, I would like to see the Bill give the HEA an explicit mandate to protect the public nature of public education, especially as it provides such a clear pathway for private colleges to become designated as higher education institutions and potentially be funded in the same way as public colleges. Like housing, education is a civil right. It is not a privilege, a commodity for profit or just something to be consumed. It is therefore critical that the public nature of third level education be considered sacrosanct. I ask that those points be taken on board.
I am glad to speak for the Labour Party on this important Bill. I am grateful to my colleague Senator Hoey, who is our spokesperson on higher education, for giving me the benefit of her insights. Obviously, I too have a strong interest in this area, having served a number of terms as a Senator for Dublin University.
I am also very proud of my long association with the law school in Trinity College where for many years I taught and carried out research and administration, which is an important part of any academic job. I am passionate about higher education and teaching. I miss my students and the role of an academic. It is a job that many people go to with a real vocation for teaching and engaging with students.
It was very appropriate that the Minister started his speech on the Bill by acknowledging the enormous adaptability and significant work that has been put in by staff, students and administrators in third level institutions over the past 22 months in adapting to Covid-19. We all acknowledge that it has not been easy. It has been a major burden, especially on students. All of us have heard from parents and students who have been distressed at the lack of face-to-face interaction, the lack of ability to be present on campuses, the lack of capacity to mix with peers and lecturers, and the major disadvantage they have been placed at as a result. There has been a detrimental impact on their studies, but also on their personal and social development. Any of us who are parents, or who know young people who are students, will be well aware of the huge difficulties and problems that has caused for many students and their families. We also acknowledge and commend the staff who have done their very best in very difficult circumstances to provide high-quality teaching, albeit not face to face but remotely. It has been very difficult for everyone so it was appropriate that the Minister acknowledged that. I also want to join him in commending all those engaged in college communities at every level of further and higher education, including universities, colleges and institutes of further education, where we have seen such enormous effort put in to adapt to Covid-19. It is so good to see campuses coming alive again and to see staff, students, administrators and all the communities on college campuses being able to engage face to face and be present again.
I will also refer briefly to the gendered impacts of Covid-19 at third level. This is something many of us will be very conscious of. I should say that I have had engagement through the Athena Swan programme. It is a great programme that we have seen being rolled out across the university sector in this country, as it has been elsewhere, which seeks to ensure that women have equal opportunities to men on campuses for promotion, in particular. We know that Athena Swan has now gone beyond gender. It is also looking at equality, diversity and inclusion programmes more broadly. We knew even before Covid-19 that there were real problems with discrimination against women at third level. Micheline Sheehy Skeffington, who brought a case against the National University of Ireland, Galway, highlighted inbuilt difficulties for women seeking promotion. I again pay tribute to the Minister's predecessor, former Minister of State, Mary Mitchell O'Connor, who brought forward women-only professorships, somewhat controversially, although I defended her very strongly. The evidence of the need for such professorships was so clear as was the provision of positive action measures at third level to address the inbuilt obstacles facing women in career progression.
That brings me back to the point about Covid-19. While gains have been made through those professorships and the Athena Swan programme, with Covid we have unfortunately seen a particularly detrimental impact on women academics whose research output - numerous studies have shown this - has suffered more than that of male colleagues. Across all professions and careers, women have borne the disproportionate burden of home schooling to the detriment of career progression. In any debate on third level and the updating of its governance models, let us focus on the need to ensure we have not rowed back on progress made in addressing gender inequality. Figures on women in professorship positions at higher levels are still very skewed against them. We have seen, very happily, a woman provost elected in Trinity College Dublin and women are now heading up other higher education institutions. It is great to see that progress being made, but we are all very conscious that there is still a lot to be done to ensure we do not have gender inequality in third level.
There are clearly other issues around diversity, especially in respect of economic disadvantage and class bias, which is something I have worked on in Trinity's law school scholarship programme. We have got a very strong model with the Trinity access programme, as have other universities and colleges, in trying to address the problem of inbuilt lower levels of progression to third level from students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds. That is something that has to be addressed. I do not think any debate on third level governance should take place without reference to that. There are some specific provisions in the Bill where more could be done on diversity.
A debate is needed on third level governance. As the Minister said, this legislation seeks to bring the statutory framework for the HEA up to date, given that the current legislation is 50 years old and has been in place since 1971. We need to acknowledge that despite the need to update that legislation, the higher education sector has played a major role in the development of our society and country. The contribution made by academics from all colleges and universities to civic engagement and public service has been immense. We have seen that throughout the pandemic but also long before it. For that reason, it is critical that this legislation must emphasise the principles of autonomy and academic freedom that have served us so well. We need to be very clear that in bringing our statutory framework for higher education governance up to date we are not creating more problems, in particular by creating a one-size-fits-all model that is overly bureaucratic and treats all higher education institutions as alike when they are patently not. It is very good and very positive that the differences are acknowledged in the legislation.
The Minister referred to the different sectoral Acts. The universities Act is very different from the legislation under the 2018 Act that set up what are now the technological universities. Even within the university sector, Trinity College has a very unique governance structure that is acknowledged by the Minister and the legislation. Concerns around preserving autonomy of institutions must be addressed and brought into the legislation. There are very legitimate concerns among many of the higher education institutions, universities and colleges about a lack of regard for autonomy and difference and too much centralising of power with the Minister. Consequently, that could have a detrimental effect on academic freedom and creativity and could see a stifling of the kind of creative endeavour that has brought so much value, not just monetary but social, to our country. That is very important.
There is much to welcome in the legislation. Clearly, the greater emphasis on the role of apprenticeships, and the need to update and modernise governance structures for apprenticeships and training, is very important. We would all acknowledge that, but it is also valid to speak of particular concerns. I might go through a few specific ones. I know we will speak more about them on Committee Stage. Conradh na Gaeilge has raised concerns about an insufficient emphasis on the Irish language, which is one particular point. While the provisions in sections 15 and 16 for the composition of the board of the HEA to be gender balanced are welcome, there is still a missed opportunity to create more provisions around recognition of diversity other than gender diversity. For example, if only one board member has direct experience of conditions for students, that may not be sufficient to represent the experiences of perhaps the most important stakeholders in this sector. That is crucial.
We also need to ensure the legislation provides adequately for the views of academic staff, research staff and others to be heard. Trade union representation is crucial too. There is a frustration for many in the sector who feel they might be demoted to poorly defined stakeholders and that their concerns might not carry the same weight as others at the table whose voices are more clearly enshrined in the law. Having due consideration to equality, diversity and inclusion should come through and underlie all the provisions in the legislation, especially those around board membership for the HEA.
There are also issues around the tone of the legislation.
Section 9 enshrines as a function of the HEA that it should provide value for money for funding provided to third level institutions. There is concern among many of those in third level with regard to placing undue emphasis on monetary values of degrees and of outputs. The word "output" has a terribly bureaucratic connotation. It is often very hard to measure the output from universities or colleges in monetary terms. Some of the most important discoveries by researchers in history were made as a result of what would have been seen as intrinsically less monetarily valuable projects. Insulin, penicillin and Viagra are three products of immense value to Ireland's economy and the biopharmaceutical sector. These products, as we know, were all discovered by accident, as was quinine, which many of us enjoy in an occasional gin and tonic. There are lots of examples throughout history of products that were discovered as by-products of unrelated research and experimentation. I refer to the pacemaker, artificial sweeteners, Velcro, the X-ray and Play-Doh, which are all examples of discoveries that were made often as a result of projects that were being funded for completely different purposes or that were not seen as fundable. We need to be careful in this legislation that we are again giving due cognisance to the idea of creativity at academic level.
President Michael D. Higgins has, given his background, spoken extensively about academic freedom Last year, he delivered a particularly good speech at the Scholars at Risk conference on academic freedom and the value placed on education. He stated: "Academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them." He also wondered if, in future, tourists would tramp through universities and be told tales of where lectures were once given and of disputations, brilliant expositions encountered or books consulted, and if all of this would be consigned to history with the new model of more bureaucratic corporate language that many people see as underpinning this Bill. In the explanatory memorandum, there is extensive reference to economic utility of universities and further and higher education institutions. We need to be clear that we are also talking about much more intangible and less easily quantifiable benefits to our third level sector.
The Labour Party had a successful programme in education under former Minister, Niamh Bhreathnach. Nobody knows better than us how the provision of high-quality third level education can usher in economic prosperity. It can raise the standard of living. I remember Ruairí Quinn, as Minister for Education, speaking glowingly about the growth in numbers referenced by the Minister and the enormous benefit to society. We can be so proud of the proportion of our population who now go on third level or further and higher education. It is really outstanding in Europe. We need to make more of that. It is such a huge benefit to society that so many of our young people now have the opportunity to go to third level. That is important. It is beyond a monetary value. To define education purely in economic terms places in peril courses which are not seen to attract foreign direct investment or which do not neatly fall into the provision of economic benefit to industries which might form our most lucrative exports. Typically, courses in the arts and humanities are seen as less intrinsically or economically valuable in this way, and yet they have enormous benefit to us as a society. It is important to emphasise that.
I want to refer to general funding concerns. Again, any debate about governance in higher education must take seriously the issue of funding. The Labour Party welcomes increases in and changes to the SUSI grant scheme for undergraduate and postgraduate students, but we still are anxious to see more done. We are conscious in particular of the extremely high, in many cases impossible, cost of accommodation for students. It costs between €7,000 and €11,000 per annum for accommodation on campus for those lucky enough to get it in UCD and Trinity College. These are exorbitant costs for students. All of us have heard stories of students sharing unsuitable cramped spaces due to unaffordable rents and competing with paid professionals for scarce rental accommodation in cities. Developments designated as so-called student accommodation are often still too costly. Again, this is a crucial issue because this cost on top of the €3,000 annual student contribution charge means students are paying very highly for their education.
I have spoken with the Minister previously about the Cassells report and the need for the nettle to be finally grasped with regard to the big question of funding for third level. The Cassells report is now nearly six years old. The Labour Party has called for the key option of State funding to be adopted by the Government rather than either of the other two options set out. The Minister said he is against the loan option, which is a welcome announcement. I do not think anyone could argue in favour the loan option. It is crucial that we move now to a situation where students do have access to free third level education. We can be very proud of the numbers who go on to third level, but the high cost of accommodation and the €3,000 charge clearly constitute a deeply off-putting deterrent for many.
My final comment is in regard to an issue that has been very much topical in universities and third level, namely, the issue of non-disclosure agreements, NDAs. My colleague, Senator Ruane, has conducted a survey on the prevalence of non-disclosure agreements and confidence agreements and her concern that they are being used to suppress the sharing of information about harassment and bullying across third level. I have spoken with constituents in Dublin Bay South and with those I served when I was a Trinity Senator. These people told me of their experience of non-disclosure agreement in different institutions. I will not name any institution. There is a concern that NDAs may protect those who have engaged in unacceptable behaviour. I have submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister on how the HEA will address the practice relating to NDAs, as well as addressing concerns around incidents of bullying and harassment across third level.
The Labour Party will support this legislation, but we have concerns about the tone of it and around the need to ensure adequate protection for autonomy of institutions and for academic freedoms within all third level institutions. We believe these are critical points to be considered in our debates on the Bill.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill. I will be parochial in my comments and I make no apology for that. My home town of Thurles has an ever-growing reputation as an academic centre. There are four excellent second level schools in the town, two of the very few boarding girls' schools in the country, namely, Presentation Secondary School and Ursuline Secondary School, the Christian Brothers Secondary School, Thurles, where I was educated, and Coláiste Mhuire Co-Ed. We have ever-expanding academic activities and, having achieved technological university status last year, Thurles has huge potential for an ever-growing academic centre. I would like to make a few proposals to the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, as to how that potential can be advanced and exploited.
Thurles town is a prime location for a second home economics teacher training course for this country. Last summer, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, accepted my invitation to my home town, where he met senior Mary Immaculate College management, including the college's president, Professor Eugene Wall, and the head of St. Patrick's Campus, Dr. Finn Ó Murchú. There is a massive demand for home economics teachers in this country, with schools struggling to fill the posts and the need to train more teachers obvious. Currently, the only four-year home economics teacher training course in the country is based in Sligo. There is a clear opening for a second option in the southern part of the country. We have an opportunity to establish Thurles as the educational hub for the midlands and mid-west. We have the rail and road infrastructure and top-class post-primary education in our town. We also have the national apprenticeship centre in Archerstown, training close to 300 apprentices at any one time.
As stated, we have the two university campuses in the town, Mary Immaculate College and the Technological University of the Shannon. Tipperary education and training board, ETB, and Mary Immaculate College Thurles have worked closely on this new course. With the support of the Government, they believe they are in a position to offer home economics in Thurles in September 2023. More important, this major benefit to higher education in the region will come with very little cost to the Exchequer. Tipperary ETB can furnish the relevant resources such as the kitchens needed.
Mary Immaculate College, in turn, is anxious that further education students can continue to access their teacher preparation programmes through the programme for access to higher education, PATH. Mary Immaculate College in Thurles currently has 475 students at undergraduate level studying to be post-primary teachers in Gaeilge, mathematics, business, religion and accounting. The addition of home economics would consolidate its position in the educational landscape and meet a clear need in our educational system.
We have made great progress to date in securing a potential home economics teacher training course for Thurles, and indeed the entire region, since the Minister's initial meeting with the university management. Now we need to find the political will and push to make this a reality from September 2023. I am asking for this final political push to get this welcome boost to education in the southern region over the line. Let us deliver a home economics teacher training course in Thurles for September 2023.
As the Minister of State is well aware, one of Ireland's new technological universities has a campus based in Thurles. The Technological University of the Shannon: Midlands Midwest, TUS, formerly the Limerick Institute of Technology, has ambitious and welcome plans for the development of a campus and for a future at the heart of education in Thurles. Central to any and all development of our further and higher education institutions in Thurles must be the provision of purpose-built student accommodation. There is massive demand in Thurles every August and September when students are rushing to secure accommodation for the coming academic year. This is placing an even greater strain on the private rental market in the town. Thurles needs purpose-built student accommodation to meet the demand of the rising numbers of students who now see the town as an attractive location to further their education. Whether it is the apprentice in the national apprentice centre in Archerstown, students availing of further education through the education and training board, ETB, or students in higher education in Mary Immaculate College or TUS, education in Thurles is going from strength to strength. We desperately need the student accommodation to match.
Tipperary ETB and TUS intend to further enhance the co-operation between the two educational institutes in Thurles town. This is an important step as it will provide a clear pathway for students who wish to continue from further education into higher education, which I know is a priority for the Department. As such, I am asking for a commitment from the Minister of State that his Department will engage further with Tipperary ETB and TUS to ensure people in Tipperary and the larger region can avail of these pathways from further to higher education.
I will add my voice to what my colleagues have said. Sinn Féin is in support of this legislation. Nobody would be against good governance, particularly in higher education. There are obviously issues of accessibility and Deputy Conway-Walsh has already spoken about some of the proposals that were made by Sinn Féin during pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, particularly relating to the cross-Border aspects. As much as we welcome the increase in board sizes and so on, there is still a need to deal with the issue of trained union representation.
I do not think it will come as a shock that I am going to raise the issue of Dundalk Institute of Technology, DkIT. A significant proportion of the Deputies who spoke previously in this debate have welcomed the moves that have been made on the status of technical universities in the south east, TUS and the Atlantic Technological University. DkIT is, unfortunately, not in that bracket. We are, unfortunately, now at a stage where there is an impact on people who are making determinations about whether to go to DkIT. People looking at their CAO forms can see they can apply to a technical university. It is the case that a rose by another name will not work. There is a need for the benefits that come from technical university status but beyond that, even at its simplest, DkIT is now hurting because it has not been made a technical university.
I know that DkIT was slow to the dance. I think the Minister has used that terminology. The difficulty is that even if a conversation were to begin with some of these technical university consortia, it would take a considerable amount of time before they are willing or able to operate a section 38 to allow DkIT in. The difficulty with that is there might be a significant number of decisions to be made which might not suit Dundalk in their outworking. That is something that needs to be done.
A considerable amount of work is being done in DkIT, which is a vital entity. I know the Minister spoke about visiting DkIT in January. He said he would deal with the Oireachtas Members for the area. That is an absolute necessity and I will be following up on it.
I thank the Minister of State for bringing forward this Bill which seeks to modernise our higher education sector and brings significant changes to the governance of higher education. This must be balanced with autonomy and, critically, sustained funding of our higher education institutions, which I intend to address later. I will begin by speaking about other aspects the Bill makes reference to, including educational access for those who historically have been under-represented in higher education. The Bill uses the term "priority groups" and states that:
"priority groups", in relation to students in higher education or, as may be appropriate, persons who are seeking to become students in higher education, includes persons who are economically or socially disadvantaged, persons who have a disability or persons from sections of society that are under-represented in the student body in higher education.
Previously, the language proposed in the Bill referred to disadvantaged learners, persons or groups but that was changed following a recommendation from the joint committee, highlighting the need for consistency and clear definitions. I am not opposing this change in language use but I do not believe that disadvantage is of itself a dirty word. I was a student who slotted into that term and I have studied alongside, worked with and, hopefully, represented many other students who also fall within the scope of disadvantage. However, and this is crucial, students are not disadvantaged but rather they are placed at a disadvantage by the system. Students from certain circumstances are not under-represented because of a lack of interest or ability but because the systems which grant access to further and higher education are not as open to them as to others. Students who have made it to higher education from these groups are resilient, have ambition and display leadership in their communities and families. It should be our number one priority to ensure there is a critical mass of students, not just a few, who succeed from what are now being termed "priority groups" and enter into higher education if that is what they choose to do.
If we choose to call students with disabilities, students who come from poorer areas and other students who are under-represented in higher education "priority groups", we need to prioritise their entry and progression through higher education. We also need to prioritise the resources in higher education as well as looking at the system of education prior to higher education and have access work that starts in primary schools or earlier. Otherwise we are just sanitising language and making it more palatable for ourselves rather than for those we seek to represent in this change of wording. These groups of students or potential students will know if they are being prioritised. No matter how many times they are referenced in the Bill, only they will be able to attest to whether the terminology in the Bill is achieved in reality.
The Bill should enhance the voice of students and in that regard, it could go further. While I welcome the fact that all college boards will have student representation, two student representatives on a board of 17 is not sufficient, especially when considering the different cohorts of students, including undergraduates, postgraduates, international students, mature students, part-time students and the students we are now to refer to as "priority groups". We know that college can be a vastly experience for different student cohorts. If we look at one particularly hard example, sexual assault and harassment affect every campus but it is disproportionately certain student cohorts who are assaulted and harassed. The findings of survey conducted by the Union of Students in Ireland, USI, and the National University of Ireland Galway in 2020, which had over 6,00 responses from 21 third level campuses in Ireland, were harrowing. They included that 29% of females and 28% of non-binary students reported non-consensual penetration by incapacitation, force or threat of force during their time in college. Over half the students with a disability, 56%, reported an experience of sexual misconduct by any tactic.
Only today, the findings of the national survey of student and staff experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment in higher education were released. They, too, were harrowing. Over 1,100 female students reported non-consensual vaginal penetration by incapacitation, coercion, force or threat of force during their time in college.
Less than half, that is, 45% of students, said it was likely that the HEI would take action to address factors that may have led to sexual violence and-or harassment, and 27% said it was likely that their HEI would have a hard time supporting the person who made the report.
We need to change the culture in our colleges and for that, it is essential that all students have a voice that can be heard at all levels of the HEIs. A tokenistic seat or two at the table will not be enough to ensure that our campuses make the changes necessary that are safe and responsive to the needs of students from diverse backgrounds.
Trinity College Dublin, TCD, for example, has four student representatives on its board as it stands. The Bill cut its existing student representation in half. Instead of such a threat, the Bill could follow the positive example of TCD and seek to increase student representation to four or above across the board. As the president of TCD student union and my cousin, Leah Kehoe, put it, if there are no students, there will be no college and no board to govern it.
I would also urge caution on external representations. There could be some recommendation of what type of organisations would have particular value to reduce the risk of external representation being only businesses or those from corporate governance backgrounds. I also believe that there should be a stronger and clearer commitment to engage with students. Section 44(1) on national student engagement states: "An tÚdarás shall, from time to time, at a national level, engage with and seek views from representatives of students (including representatives of students in priority groups)."If this Bill is going to modernise HEIs and set practice, we can do better than "from time to time" being enshrined in the Bill in laying the foundation of student engagement.
There is a great phrase contained in the Bill, which is to "promote, support and fund excellent research in the higher education system across all disciplines ..." I very much welcome that. The Bill, however, misses out in terms of mentioning who those people are who support, contribute and conduct the excellent research.
Postgraduate and PhD students are faced with extremely low pay, and precarious working conditions in higher education are, by nature, omitted from the Bill. This issue is also stifling diversity within research. We need to diversify in order to be excellent.
In 2013, the Irish Research Council's, IRC, PhD scholarship annual stipend was €16,000. Rent in Dublin at that time was €1,050 per month - difficult but manageable in the extreme. Last year brought the first increase to the IRC's PhD scholarship in many years to the sum of €18,050 per annum. It is still wholly inadequate for the cost of living, particularly when one considers the average rent in the capital will set a person back €2,030. It is little wonder that HEA data looking at the socio-economic profile of students found that the PhD cohort in 2018-19 was the most affluent cohort among all types of enrolment. This seems to happen by necessity, not by fate. A person would need to be extremely wealthy to engage in a PhD at this time.
This is not to detail the issue with short-term contracts or staff paid by the hour who do not have access to sick leave or maternity leave. We cannot fund and expect excellent research if we do not recognise that behind the research are human beings with rights and basic needs that must be met. I am very conscious of how we diversify those who have access to the highest level of education in our society. We have made some significant strides in increasing the numbers of those who get to go on to university at third level but when it comes to master's degree and PhD students, we still have a way to go. It now seems that master's degrees and, in particular, PhDs have become the exclusive reserve of those who afford them. That needs to be challenged. Who gets to set exactly what research is in this country? It cannot only be one particular cohort of students. We will miss out on the excellence and diversity required to set credible parameters of research moving forward. We cannot fund and expect excellent research if we do not recognise that it is human beings behind the research, who have basic rights and needs. We also cannot continue to only be concerned by access and equality at the point of entry into higher and further education and ignore it at a postgraduate level and above. This is also something we ignore at Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, and Further Education and Training Awards Council, FETAC, levels of progression.
I will give the Minister of State a particular example. Earlier this year, a constituent got in touch with me. She had ambitions of becoming a nurse. When she did not get the points, she decided to do a QQI level 5 course in nursing and did very well in it, achieving top results. When she started to try to apply for entry into a degree, however, she found out how unlikely she was to get a place because of the few places dedicated to entry from QQI routes in nursing.
Research conducted by my office last year found there were between 1,168 and 1,296 places, depending on level of interest, for level 5 nursing studies run by 27 organisations, yet there were only 152 places among 13 colleges and universities that were offering entry into degrees from these courses from QQI level 5. That is a failure of our system. We are telling young people there are alternative entries into courses, particularly a course such as nursing that attracts people from a wealth of different backgrounds who view it as a vocation. They want to enter it through FETAC and colleges of further education. There are a multitude of great institutions but the entry routes into third level do not exist. We are missing out on a large cohort of people who would be fantastic in that chosen profession by limiting access to third-level degrees. That constituent is no closer to becoming a nurse almost two years on and in truth, as she conveyed to us, it feels to her that she may have wasted a year and a lot of money along the way. There is a huge wealth of alternative entry routes. The previous speaker mentioned some of them, including Trinity Access Programmes and Liberties College. I specifically know a few more in Dublin, for example, Technological University Dublin, formerly Dublin Institute of Technology, DIT. They have great access programmes. We need to look what they have done to foster the model and bring it into a wider national context.
Of course, part of the issue with access to further and higher education lies in the unfairness of the leaving certificate. I fully accept that this Bill cannot factor in the idea of the leaving certificate but it often operates as the entry examination into universities. I do not, therefore, think we can omit talking about it. The Minister of State has no control over that system but the admission method for most courses into HEIs facilitated by the CEO and points system reinforces the inequity of the leaving certificate.
Admission routes and entry into all levels of study need to be examined and most HEIs have done fantastic work here on an individual basis. If their learnings could be captured and replicated, it could be transformative. We need to hold ambition, however, and not safeguard the old ways for the sake of tradition. We are having an interesting conversation about the type of leaving certificate this year's cohort will sit. We need to talk about how we can transform that across the board and see it on a spectrum of not only the leaving certificate but entry routes into college as a whole to see if this current system is suitable for the purposes intended. I do not believe we should design a model now with that in mind if we are to start from scratch.
I welcome sections 37 and 42, which deal with funding frameworks. They allow the HEA to set criteria for funding frameworks and a mechanism for withholding funding if those criteria have not been met. With this, however, there needs to be a promise that HEIs are funded adequately in order that they can address issues such as the mental health and well-being of their students.
There are two references to value for money in the Bill, that is, value for money in public expenditure allocated to funding bodies in higher education under sections 8(1) and 9(1). Here, we need to be careful. Marketisation has dominated the higher education landscape for too long and the underfunding of the sector has been well documented and widely accepted, whish was particularly highlighted in the 2016 Cassells report. I will quote part of the executive summary by Mr. Peter Cassells:
We have the opportunity to set out a new level of ambition for the system and restore it as key enabler of our future development. As a country, we need to be willing to make bold decisions that will ultimately pay dividends for all of us - families, businesses, taxpayers, society.
The ambition of the Bill should be that it pays out dividends for all of us and does not become a stringent value for money exercise. We need to be cognisant of the language we use and the context of underinvestment the sector has had to stomach for years when discussions continue about the funding model of higher education in the State. There is a fear that the Bill will only give power in one direction. The HEIs may be faced with the naughty step or punitive measures from the Minister of State or HEA but by taking on this work to modernise higher education, the Minister of State and HEA are taking responsibility to ensure stainable funding models are provided for higher education. We await and welcome that. Above all, the Bill should seek to ensure our investment in and value of education because we see the inherent value of education at all times and for all people. I thank both the Minister and Minister of State for bring the Bill to the House. We will support it and we believe we can radicalise the matter of higher education in this country.
Like other colleagues in the House, I welcome this draft legislation, which fulfils a number of commitments from the programme for Government. There have been a number of references to the 1971 Act. We will all agree it is long overdue and in need of an overhaul. It demonstrates the value of having a senior ministry devoted to the area of higher education and research to bring that focus and energy to the issue.
It is comprehensive in its scope, modern in its approach to governance and inclusive with regard to the student voice.
It rightly emphasises access for all and diversity and it takes a broad view in its definition of education and its place in today's world. This Bill has at its core the idea that education is a public good, that universities are primarily public institutions operating with major investment of public money. To that end, we have a duty as a Government and as an Oireachtas to oversee that expenditure in the public interest. I agree with some of the points raised by Deputy Gannon around marketisation and how that is not a road we want to travel. We have to ensure, however, that the co-governance model contained in the Bill does not mean that this oversight will come at the expense of the autonomy of individual institutions, as has been referred to by a number of Deputies. We need to make sure that it strikes the right balance between the relative roles of the Minister, the HEA and the institutions themselves. While aware of the contribution of education to national competitiveness and keeping pace with technological advantages, this Bill is clear that education is for individual discovery, for the good of wider society and not simply, as some would have it, as subservient to the needs of the market.
Cé go bhfáiltím go bhfuil an Ghaeilge luaite sa Bhille, ní leor é nach luaitear ach uair amháin í agus sna cuspóirí idir lúibíní in aice na tagartha do chultúr. Ba chóir go mbeadh an Ghaeilge san áireamh le gach tagairt do riachtanas agus nasc cultúrtha tríd an mBille ar fad. Ba chóir, freisin, go mbeadh feidhm shonraithe ag an údarás gníomhú ar chúrsaí Gaeilge. Níl aon fheidhm sa Bhille, mar a sheasann sé faoi láthair, maidir leis an nGaeilge. Ba chóir inniúlacht sa Ghaeilge a chinntiú ar bhord an údaráis, ar údaráis rialaithe na n-ollscoileanna agus na n-ollscoileanna teicneolaíochta agus ar chomhlachtaí rialaithe na gcoláistí, má tá siad chun freastal go cothrom agus go sásúil ar phobal na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta agus orthu siúd ar spéis leo an teanga, go háirithe leis na himpleachtaí a éiríonn as an bhforáil go mbeidh 20% de na daoine a earcófar amach anseo inniúil sa Ghaeilge. Is gá an soláthar seirbhísí agus chúrsaí Gaeilge a chinntiú, a mhéadú agus a thógáil san áireamh san ardoideachas. Tá mé ag súil go mbeidh an tAire Stáit sásta breathnú ar leasuithe i dtaobh na laigí sin ar Chéim an Choiste.
Refreshingly, the legislation places teaching, learning and research on an equal footing and it does not make the mistake of artificial distinctions in this regard. Teaching, learning and research intersect, overlap and enhance one another. There can be an artificial distinction between knowledge creation and knowledge dissemination, that is to say between research and teaching. We need to afford our higher education professionals the space to be able to do both of those things effectively. Our universities must be places where knowledge and ideas are generated and where knowledge and ideas are shared. That balance is important. If we go too far down the road of publish or perish, teaching will suffer. If the teaching workload is too high, research will suffer.
The importance of the voice of the student is represented in this legislation, but there is scope to strengthen that further. The ongoing review of an tÚdarás is explicit on the need for data around inclusion. That is a welcome provision. I note that the board of an tÚdarás will have at least one student or student representative and governing bodies are to have at least two student representatives. I would say that this the very minimum required in order for students to always have a seat at the table.
Part IV makes specific provision for engagement with students, including formal engagement and training. This, along with the student survey every two years, are positive developments. There are, however, some elements that might diminish the chance of the student voice being heard in a meaningful way at these governing board meetings. First there is the issue of tenure. Non-student board members can serve for up to eight years, while we can expect that students will serve for a year and no longer. There is a skills issue here. It can take time to learn not just the ropes of how a board operates, but also how to navigate the personalities on any given board. I acknowledge that there is an effort to provide for this upskilling, but I also have a nagging worry that a board could just wait a student out. They could frustrate and delay change until a student’s tenure lapses. I wonder if we can address this going forward. The Minister might say that this is taken care of in section 43(3), where each institution must report on the issues raised by students and how they were addressed, via the annual report or through another method. Again, here in reality, we have no guarantee that what is published in that report will have been agreed to by what will be a student minority on the board. Perhaps the Minister might consider stating that this annual report has to be explicitly and demonstrably approved by the student cohort on the board. That would help strengthen that student voice.
I warmly welcome the definition in section 108 of academic freedom. The European University Association ranked the autonomy of universities. Ireland´s highest placing in this research was third for academic autonomy. This is a prized position and we need to continue to value that and to try to improve it again. This recalls Edward Said's definition of a public intellectual as someone who not just displays freedom of thought, but who is brave enough to say this loud and clear for all of us to hear. He states:
At bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwillingly, but actively willing to say so in public.
We need our academics who are ready to criticise us when we put a foot wrong. We need our students to keep agitating and to keep us uncomfortable. We need academic staff to be both free and, in some sense, duty-bound to help steer us on the right path, as well as being wary of easy acceptance or false consensus. We have learned to value experts over the last two years in managing Covid-19. We should do that in other areas. Climate jumps out to me as an obvious example. We need our universities to feel that their institutions are of us and for all of us. This legislation goes a good distance towards achieving that goal.
Our higher education system needs reform. Unfortunately, this Bill is a missed opportunity to take the necessary action. It is welcome that this legislation will revoke the existing Higher Education Authority Act 1971, which is now over 50 years old. The legislation is an opportunity to reform the law in this area and to include progressive policies within the objectives of the Higher Education Authority and individual higher education institutes. The Bill contains positive elements but leaves room for improvement. The positives of this Bill include student representation on the board of the HEA and structured student engagement and provisions for lifelong and flexible learning. The introduction of equality statements and gender-balanced measures on governing bodies is also to be welcomed.
Unfortunately, there are more negatives than positives and the legislation is overly prescriptive on governance structures. It reduces the representative nature of governance structures. It provides for selective exemptions for Trinity College Dublin only. Other institutes must also have room for exemptions. The law does not provide for trade union representation on boards. It does not explicitly commit to protecting the public ownership of higher education. Improvements were made to the Bill during prelegislative scrutiny, when a number of Sinn Féin recommendations were taken on board. These include the specific reference to the HEA having a role in the promotion of the Irish language, but this needs to be strengthened.
The HEA role in promoting cross-Border co-operation in higher education is to be welcomed. The legislation addresses some governance concerns in higher education, but this is not the main problem facing the sector. Legislative reform will be of limited value unless it is accompanied by a sustainable funding model. We urge the Minister to publish the economic evaluation of the Cassells report and to bring forward a plan for taking higher education out of austerity mode. The Bill provides a clear pathway for private colleges to become designated higher education institutes and to be potentially funded in the same manner as public colleges. The HEA should be given an explicit mandate to protect the public nature of third level education. We have seen too much privatisation and pandering to private interests. The public good must be prioritised.
We certainly need radical reform of further and higher education. Therefore, insofar as the Bill states as its objective a desire to improve the quality of further and higher education, one could not quibble much with its aspirations.
It aims to do the following: promote the interests of students; advance equality, diversity and inclusion; achieve excellence in teaching, learning, etc.; and maximise the contributions of higher education to social, economic, cultural, Irish language and environmental development and sustainability. Those are all very worthy aspirations but I am not sure how the Bill achieves any of those things. I just do not see the connection between the aspirations that are set out in the Bill's own description of itself and what the Bill actually does.
I am somewhat baffled as to what this Bill sets out to achieve. We have another new acronym now with the introduction of designated institutions of higher education, DIHEs. I do not see, for example, how reducing the governance bodies or boards of universities and these designated institutions from 40 to 17 improves things. I do not really understand that. I was just chatting to a student union representative about this. Currently, on those boards of 40 there are about four students, between four and six trade union representatives, some councillors and other appointees. With this new board of 17, there will be fewer students and there may not be any trade union representatives. There will certainly be fewer of them and there will be more ministerial appointees and appointees that the body itself selects based on expertise. I am not saying these boards function brilliantly at the moment but I do not see what this reduction achieves.
This new Higher Education Authority, an tÚdarás um Ard-Oideachas, is to have 12 board members. If I understand it correctly, that board must be gender balanced, which is good. It has to respect diversity and so on and it has to have one student representative, but these are all appointees. Again, I just do not see how this guarantees any of the reforms or aspirations the Bill sets out. There are no radical departures in the Bill to address the problems in further and higher education. I just do not see it. In fact, I am a little worried about this matter because these are all external appointees and I wonder who they will be.
One of the biggest problems with further and higher education is its corporatisation and corporate takeover over recent years. Due to the underfunding of further and higher education over many decades, higher and further education institutes, universities, colleges and so on have been pushed towards trying to get more and more sponsorship from the private sector and from business. It appals me, as someone who was in UCD, that there are monuments to Tony O'Reilly and all sorts of other people up there. There is probably a Denis O'Brien building somewhere, or will be soon if there is not already. That horrifies me, quite honestly. The idea that our universities, colleges and higher education institutes will have to depend on the patronage of billionaires and the super-wealthy to get buildings and fund courses and research worries me deeply.
There are many statistics about the mental health problems experienced by first year students. For example, NUIG did a survey about the extraordinarily high number of students who are suffering with mental health issues, as well as the high level of dropouts and so on. I did not see that when I was in college. I can see the difference when I go up to UCD, which happens to be where I went. The whole place has become almost terrifying because it looks so corporate. The pressure on students is exponentially greater than it was when I was there. It has become much more dehumanised and based on everything I hear from students and students' unions, that is where it is at.
Lots of students feel incredible stress and pressure, including financial pressures. They face huge problems sourcing affordable accommodation as the accommodation built on campus is incredibly expensive. Colleges have a massive overreliance on non-EU students. I do not have any problems with non-EU students but they have to pay full fees and that is a big problem for many of them. Colleges want to get people who pay full fees because they are not getting enough of a subsidy from central government to fund further and higher level education.
There have been some improvements but one of the most terrible facts, which we discussed as part of our motion on open access to further and higher education last March, is that 99% of people from Dublin 6 go to university and college whereas the figure for predominantly working class areas is about 15%. That is a shameful fact about the inequity that exists in access to universities and further and higher education. I know it has improved somewhat but we have a long way to go in terms of unequal access. Those pressures carry on once people get into college or university because of the extraordinary difficulty in getting accommodation if they need it and the extortionate rents. People who have to work their way through college could work all the hours God sent and they still would not be able to pay some of the rents being charged in on-campus accommodation, never mind all the private student accommodation that is being built by investment funds charging €1,000 a month. How are these students supposed to study when they are working like a dog to pay these rents, if they can even manage to pay them? Many just cannot do it.
Student poverty and mental health issues are rampant. I have highlighted this again and again. It is very relevant in the week we are in with the scandal in south Kerry but it is part of a wider problem of chronically deficient mental health services for young people, whether they are adolescents or young adults, and many of them are students. I have highlighted this huge irony, prompted by some of the people who are studying subjects in areas such as psychology, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy, where there is a chronic shortage. The Tánaiste said again today that there is great difficulty in recruiting people to fill these posts. The irony is that we need counselling services but we make it virtually impossible, or extraordinarily difficult, for the people who actually want to fill those posts, study those subjects and do those jobs in psychology, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy and so on to qualify. That is because of the extortionate postgraduate fees and the lack of funding for many of those doctorate courses in psychology.
As I pointed out, there is no funding whatsoever for doctorates in counselling and education psychology, which is precisely the sort of thing we need in our schools and colleges to help our young people. There is no funding whatsoever. I talked to some young people trying to get qualified in psychology and they said they are in a dire situation. They are landed with these fees and are trying to work at the same time while also being on placement and trying to study.
We are putting every barrier we possibly can in the way of them getting qualified, when there is a desperate need for these people to deal with the waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services.
That is a slight tangent. The point is that our further and higher education institutions should be helping us solve these problems, but we are making it very difficult for people to get into these institutions and then do the things they want to do when they are there. We need radical change in that regard. It is because the institutions are not funded properly that they are increasingly being pushed towards trying to become more like corporate outfits and raising their own money, which means a rise in or over-reliance on fees or extortionately expensive accommodation.
I apologise for going on about counselling services, but I spoke to a student representative today about them. I know that this Bill has a governance framework for accountability around expenditure in terms of central government funding and provides that there should be accountability. However, what does that mean when in UCD, for example, there are some internal counselling services, but the number of people outsourced to private external counselling services has shot up twentyfold in recent years? This Bill does not say anything about stopping that. The college will probably say it is cheaper to outsource. I doubt that is the case, but that is often what is said, probably because the college does not want direct employees. It does not want the hassle of having to employ people and have obligations towards them. Therefore, it outsources the counselling services to the detriment of the students.
Many of the academic staff, including postgraduate students who are doing master's degrees, PhDs and so on, are on crappy hourly contracts and part-time hours. Approximately 50% of academic staff are in precarious working conditions. What will this Bill do to address that? We very much need to increase the capacity of our third level institutions to meet the demands and aspirations of young people coming out of school who want to progress their education in the things they want to do. It is very hard for them to do those things because of the stupid, unnecessary and anachronistic leaving certificate system. Even if people get in, we do not have half enough places to meet the demand for what they want to do. When I told the Tánaiste that we should have open access, he said we do not have the staff or the capacity, but of course we do because we have all these academic staff on precarious part-time contracts who would love permanent jobs working in our educational institutions. However, we do not want to force the universities and colleges to employ more people and increase that capacity by giving them proper jobs and job security.
I do not see what this Bill does to change any of that. Those are the big issues. I listened to the Minister of State earlier on and I read through the stuff, but I do not see what this Bill achieves. I would like to see it being much more specific and tied down in terms of the objective to ensure absolutely open access for everybody to the further and higher education of their choice. It would be far better for the students, for the staff, for our society and ultimately for the economy, although I hate reducing education down to the economy, if people were able to access the higher education they want. If resources were put into making sure a state-of-the-art education is provided, if all the financial and other barriers to people doing what they want to do were removed and if we resourced our further and higher education institutions to support students in providing that kind of education, it would be better for the students, the staff and our society. I do not see precisely where this Bill will help achieve that.
I do not have much more to say. Maybe the Government spokespeople will respond by saying that I am completely wrong, that it is all in the Bill, that this will revolutionise further and higher education and that it will achieve all of these things, but I do not see where the Bill provides for that. There is nothing particularly objectionable in the Bill, but I do not see what in the Bill will change things. I am specifically concerned by the reduction in the numbers and the changes in the make-up of the governance bodies of our colleges and universities. I would like to hear the argument for how this Bill will make things better in that regard. The alternative in terms of governance would involve the students and the academic and non-academic staff, rather than appointees and overly paid executives and administrators, being the dominant group in the governance of these institutions. It would be best if democratically elected representatives of the students and the academic and non-academic staff, including the porters, the caterers and everybody else who works in these institutions, elected the majority. Of course experts in finance and others will be needed, but the dominant force in running our institutions of education should be the people who study in them, the academic staff who deliver the education and the other workers who make these institutions function. That is what I would like to see. It would be a real revolution in the governance of our further and higher education institutions. All of that will be no more than the moving around of deckchairs unless we put in the resources to ensure we have open access to further and higher education and all of the financial and other barriers to people realising their full creative and intellectual potential are removed. At present, those multiple barriers fundamentally distort and damage the ability of our higher and further education institutions to do the job they should be doing, which is now more important than ever when one looks at the skills shortages we have in so many areas. It makes absolutely no sense that we allow those barriers to persist. We need to overhaul radically our approach to further and higher education.
I welcome the opportunity to engage in this significant debate. This important Bill will bring about important changes to the delivery of higher education. It will help to modernise our higher education system by bringing it into the 21st century and, in turn, allowing it to meet the demands of our society.
It is relevant in this debate to consider where we have come from with regard to higher education and access to higher education. At the time of the introduction of the HEA, Ireland had 20,000 students in higher education. Today, we have more than 200,000. This remarkable growth has helped to unlock the talent and potential of millions of people over the years.
Our success in expanding the accessibility to higher education in Ireland has contributed to building our economy, attracting foreign investment, providing new possibilities for our people and sending a message to everyone on this island that should you have the drive and passion, opportunities will be presented in this country. Such an increase in this sector demands reform and in such a scenario, it is important that legislation keeps pace with the real-world implications facing the higher education sector and, indeed, students in Ireland.
As our society changes, so do the demands within our society. A thriving higher education sector allows for the sector to deliver people with the skills that this country requires so that we can continue to grow, both as a people and as an economy. I am, therefore, pleased that a long overdue review of how we as a country approach higher education is now under way, and credit must be given to the Ministers for driving this agenda.
A key component of that change is with regard to apprenticeships. For too long and to our detriment as a country, a stigma has been attached to those engaging with apprenticeships or alternative routes in higher education. This has limited our progress and limited the choice of people emerging from our schools or seeking to retrain. Indeed, we only have to look toward our partners in the EU to recognise the lost opportunity resulting from us too long ignoring the role of apprenticeships. Germany, for example, has a long history of successful apprenticeship programmes and, indeed, many business leaders in Germany have come through such programmes.
By engaging with and developing this area of higher education in Ireland, we can harness a yet untapped skill set in our economy which, in turn, will contribute to the development of well-paid jobs and help the nation reach our goals, including but not limited to retrofitting, which will help tackle our carbon emissions and help in efforts to deliver on the construction of badly-needed homes across Ireland. To that end, and to be a little parochial about it, I represent the fastest growing community in the country yet, while Fingal has TU Dublin Blanchardstown and DCU south of the airport, when it comes to further education and training facilities we are the poor cousins of the south side of the city. That is why Swords would be an eminently sensible location for such a facility, with expected growth to 100,000 people by the mid-2030s. I encourage the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins, as I have in the past at the committee, to conduct research into the demands of north Dublin versus the offering currently available.
A vital component of this Bill will be significant and momentous change to the governance of higher education institutions. This Bill will put the Higher Education Authority, HEA, on a regulator footing, allowing it the powers and authority to seek information, distribute funding and respond when such funding is misused. This is a major and important change to the current system in which the higher education system operates.
When funding is provided, the HEA will issue conditions of funding which must be complied with for the receipt of those public funds. Here, again, we can see a significant change to the system.
The reform of the structures for the governing authorities will ensure that boards are competency-based and smaller in size. By doing so, we will move away from the archaic and non-transparent approaches that have been used too long within our higher education institutes and in the process, make them fairer and more equitable.
The result of these changes will put students at the centre of the higher education system, more so than ever before. This will provide higher quality in our education sector, providing necessary accountability, delivering excellence in teaching, providing for the skill demands of our society and increase diversity, equality and inclusion. Putting students at the heart of our higher education system will, I believe, result in better education and options for students in Ireland and this, in turn, will benefit our country as a whole.
The contents of this Bill will also increase our international reputation within higher education institutions. We in Ireland have been rightly proud for our ability to attract an increasing number of international students to our institutions and this Bill will only serve to enhance our reputation abroad by bringing new talent to our shores, both through the student body and academic professionals and administrators. Such changes in a society can unlock new areas of life for our people, giving us the freedom to find the right fit that can lead to the ideas and creativity that ricochets across our society from the cultural to the economic. We can only benefit from such developments driving our society forward with greater inclusion and participation by allowing everyone to engage in the country around them with new ideas which I hope will lead to them flourishing as students.
It is also noteworthy in the context of this debate to highlight the important changes that will occur with regard to Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI. The Minister has been passionate about delivering reform in SUSI since taking office. Indeed, in budget 2022, we saw significant increases in student supports, some of which have not seen an increase in many years. By expanding the accessibility of SUSI, we encourage yet more people to pursue their ambitions and passion within the higher education sector.
The Bill sets out a roadmap for the future of higher education and, I believe, marks the most fundamental changes of governance in our institutions in a generation. It will be looked back on in time as a positive and ambitious step forward in our efforts to deliver a broad, high quality, accessible and inclusive education system that provides options and choices for individuals to find their path or, indeed, their passion.
As a member of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education, I look forward to working with the Ministers in the passage of this Bill but also to achieving our collective goals of making the Irish education system as robust and as transparent as possible.
There has been much good news for County Tipperary with the establishment of the Technological University of the Shannon, which will host more than 14,000 students across six campuses, including Clonmel and Thurles. It is past time that we saw positive developments such as this for my county.
Now that such changes and reforms are being made, the Bill is of extreme importance.
Sinn Féin believes that all colleges should be given a greater degree of flexibility in terms of governance structures so long as necessary criteria, in terms of functioning and accountability, are met. I believe this to be of particular importance to the Technological University of the Shannon, given the large geographical area it covers.
Since Monday, 22 January, the Technological University of the Shannon started inviting expressions of interest from external candidates to join its governing body. Given the fact that the development of the Technological University of the Shannon, TUS, will prove to be so transformative for the regions concerned, it is crucial that there is adequate representation from all sides involved in university life.
The 2018 legislation to establish technological universities allowed for board membership of up to 22 or 26, depending on the number of institutes of technology that merge. I question why limiting this to 17 is seen as appropriate, given the geographic breadth of what we are talking about here. Given the broadness geographically and institutionally of the TUS and the potentials that are involved, there needs to be flexibility in terms of the level of representation allowed for universities of this status.
This Bill also contains mention of promoting a student-focused system. While I welcome that, it appears that the proposed reform to governing bodies could result in students having less representation on governing bodies. I would appreciate any clarity the Minister of State could provide on these concerns.
The world and, indeed, this country is changing rapidly these days. Progress is speeding up. This is the case in terms of technological advances, and it is equally the case for issues of personal development, equality and matters of tolerance and inclusivity. This rapid level of progression must be factored in when we are discussing the issue of representation on boards of institutions.
I welcome many aspects of this Bill, including student representation on the board of the HEA. This is where the importance of adequate and broad representation cannot be over emphasised.
While I also welcome the fact that improvements have been made in some areas during pre-legislative scrutiny, such as the inclusion of a specific role from the HEA in promoting cross-Border co-operation in higher education, Sinn Féin would still like to see a specific role in promoting cross-Border student enrolment.
I also recognise the establishment of the National Apprenticeship Office, but we need certainty that this is not used as an opportunity to dismantle the craft apprenticeship model.
Finally, I want to bring attention to how some people are not qualifying for supports to continue in their education. People need to be supported and encouraged in their ambition to improve the prospects of their families, not told to give up their education to avail of supports.
I intend to speak for only one minute.
While I very much welcome the Bill because I believe we need reform in higher education, I in fact was a member of a higher education governing body and never attended a meeting. You might ask why would I be proud of that. I did it because I was an automatic member as the Lord Mayor. It is a terrible way of governance of any institution to have automatic members and I welcome the Bill because it reforms that system.
I have been asked to put on the record of the House the concerns of some institutions that the Bill could create a transfer window. Where we end the governing bodies all at the same time, there will be significant competition in the sector by different institutions to fill all of the places.
We could consider allowing the current governing bodies to serve out their terms and, in an ordinary way over time, those new structures would be taken up. The Bill will also remove many councillors from governance structures here, which is important because that kind of system is not fit for purpose but there should be an alternative structure that allows councillors to have a role and input into how these governing bodies operate.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his discretion.